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The Volyn Tragedy: Reconciliation or Confrontation?

The Volyn Tragedy: Reconciliation or Confrontation?
Article by: Bohdan Chervak, OUN President
Translated by: Christine Chraibi

The Polish Peasant Party is proposing to commemorate July 11 as the Day of Remembrance of the victims of genocide committed by the OUN and UPA in eastern regions of the Second Polish Republic (1918-1939). This is how some Poles have responded to the appeal  for joint repentance and forgiveness launched by Leonid Kravchuk, Viktor Yushchenko and other Ukrainian leaders.

In addition, three bills accusing Ukrainians of “ethnic cleansing and genocide” have been registered in the Polish Sejm. This is how some Poles are preparing to mark the 73rd anniversary of the Volyn tragedy, which they call the “Volyn massacre”.

What measures should be taken by Ukraine in this case?

First, we must abandon the “ostrich policy” and stop pretending that nothing important is happening in Poland. Second, we must defend our national interests… even if the Poles don’t like it.

I’d like to point out that there are no reasonable political grounds for raising such anti-Ukrainian hysteria in Poland. When Ukraine and Poland celebrated the 60th anniversary of the tragic events in Volyn, the parliaments and presidents of both countries adopted historic documents, which present a joint consensus and understanding between the Ukrainian and Polish peoples. The statement issued by both parliaments reads as follows:

“European history has many examples of national hatred, war, blood, and violence. At the same time, there are examples of understanding between nations that wanted and were able to overcome the most difficult tragedies in their common history. People who have been and are still affected by the Volyn tragedy have a moral duty to unite our countries for the future, for the sake of a common objective. May forgiveness and understanding forge the foundation for a better future, neighbourly relations and Ukrainian-Polish friendship!”

Polish Young Eagles Memorial at Lychakivsky Cemetary, Lviv, Ukraine
Polish Young Eagles Memorial at Lychakivsky Cemetary, Lviv, Ukraine

After the 60th anniversary of the Volyn tragedy, Ukraine took an unprecedented step with regard to Poland, its neighbour and “European advocate”. In June 2005, despite strong protests from certain locals, the Young Eagles Memorial was inaugurated at the Lychakivsky Cemetery in Lviv. It marks the resting place of Polish soldiers who perished in combat against Ukrainian partisans fighting for Ukrainian statehood in the early 1900s. Both Ukraine and Poland were then willing to reach an understanding in the name of a “common European future”, and even some government officials hurriedly declared that this was finally “an act of Ukrainian-Polish reconciliation”.

It’s absurd to deny that mass murders were committed during the 1943 Ukrainian-Polish war in Volyn. But, it’s even more absurd to disregard and ignore what motivated Ukrainians at that time.

In 1941, Volyn was occupied by Nazi Germany. Common sense dictated that under such circumstances the Poles who lived in the Volyn region should not enter into a conflict with the Ukrainian population. Instead, the Polish exile government in London ordered Poles to form underground militias in Volyn – a Home Army charged with keeping Volyn as part of the future Polish state.

Ukrainian nationalist militias were being formed at the same time. In July 1941, the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) organized the Poliska Sich division in Volyn, led by Otaman Taras Bulba-Borovets. OUN troops also launched attacks and raids in the area. Not only were Ukrainian organizations fighting against occupying troops, but they were also struggling to establish an independent country on ethnic Ukrainian lands. This would inevitably put them in direct conflict with the Polish Home Army and the Polish government in London, which continued to consider Volyn part of Poland.

In the spring of 1943, the Germans were preparing to ship another batch of young people to work in Germany. The Ukrainian police was supposed to take part in this operation, but they refused to help the Germans. In reprisal, the Nazis disarmed the Ukrainian police corps in Zdolbuniv – twelve people were shot, and the others were deported to the Reich.

This incident persuaded many Ukrainian police officers to join the ranks of the OUN and UPA and gave rise to even more repression of Ukrainians by the Germans.

The situation became even more complicated when Poles began massively joining the ranks of local police. They often formed punitive expeditions that travelled around Volyn villages and persecuted Ukrainian civilians. In April 1943, Polish police units took over many Volyn districts, towns, and estates. The Poles often provoked the Germans against the Ukrainian population.

The breaking point was reached on March 17, 1943 when the German punitive SS troops and the Polish police massacred Ukrainian civilians in the village of Remel, Rivne Oblast – 615 innocent villagers were shot, and only 70 survived. According to the testimony of some survivors, historians have been able to record the reasons for this pogrom – the Ukrainian villagers were “guilty” of helping and hiding their countrymen from eastern Ukraine, former prisoners of the Soviet Army.

The Germans and the Polish Home Army were not the only forces to openly oppose the local Ukrainian population. In 1942, special Bolshevik units charged with fighting the Germans and the UPA and counting many Polish communists in their ranks were dispatched to Polissia and Volyn regions.

Retaliation was quick… the UPA decided to “depolonize” Western Ukraine. Polish families were forced to leave their homes in 48 hours, and settle beyond the Buh and Syan Rivers. This marked the outbreak of the 1943 Ukrainian-Polish war in Volyn.

The conflict reached its peak in July 1943. Polish sources recorded that there were about 300 anti-Polish operations during that month, most of them in Sarny, Kostopil, Rivne and Zdolbuniv districts. Retaliatory attacks took place in Dubno and Lutsk districts. More operations were organized in Horokhivsky, Kovel and Volodymyrsky districts in July and August, and in Lyubinsky district in August.

These operations indicate that the UPA was determined to force the Poles beyond the historical lines of the Ukrainian-Polish border.

The Poles didn’t just sit around and wait. More than 100 self-defense units were created in Volyn in 1943. Polish resistance movements operated in Pshebrazhe (Lutsk district), Huta Stepanska and Stara Huta (Kostopil district), Panska Dolyna (Dubno district), Zasmyky (Kovel district), Bilyn (Volodymyrsky district), and others. Most of them were unable to resist the UPA and were destroyed. The UPA ceased attacks in late 1943.

It should also be noted that, seeking to take revenge on Ukrainians, many Poles joined the Soviet partisans. 7,000 Poles served in the ranks of different “red” guerrilla groups. This also added fuel to the fire as UPA partisans and the Ukrainian civilian population considered the Soviet forces their greatest enemy.

I’d like to conclude by saying that Ukraine has every reason to ask Poland to consider the following aspects of this tragedy:

  1. The OUN and UPA had only one goal – to liberate Volyn of occupying forces, including Poles and the Polish Home Army, which considered Volyn an integral part of Poland.
  2. It’s important to note that Poles worked closely with the Communists and red guerrillas whom the OUN and UPA saw as their greatest enemy, which only intensified the Ukrainian-Polish conflict.
  3. The OUN and UPA did not launch retaliatory attacks on traditional Polish territory.
  4. Most importantly, the OUN and UPA are recognized and protected by Ukrainian law and the Ukrainian government will not allow anyone to denigrate their dignity and honour.

Ukraine and Poland have enjoyed good relations in the 21st century, including the evaluation of the 1943 Volyn tragedy. In conclusion, I’d just like to remind Ukrainians and Poles of the joint statement issued by both parliaments five years ago (see above).

There’s nothing more to add…


Translated by: Christine Chraibi
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